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THE HARMAS




This is what I wished for, hoc erat in votis: a bit of land, oh,
not so very large, but fenced in, to avoid the drawbacks of a
public way; an abandoned, barren, sun scorched bit of land,
favored by thistles and by wasps and bees. Here, without fear of
being troubled by the passersby, I could consult the Ammophila and
the Sphex [two digger or hunting wasps] and engage in that
difficult conversation whose questions and answers have experiment
for their language; here, without distant expeditions that take up
my time, without tiring rambles that strain my nerves, I could
contrive my plans of attack, lay my ambushes and watch their
effects at every hour of the day. Hoc erat in votis. Yes, this
was my wish, my dream, always cherished, always vanishing into the
mists of the future.

And it is no easy matter to acquire a laboratory in the open
fields, when harassed by a terrible anxiety about one's daily
bread. For forty years have I fought, with steadfast courage,
against the paltry plagues of life; and the long-wished-for
laboratory has come at last. What it has cost me in perseverance
and relentless work I will not try to say. It has come; and, with
it--a more serious condition--perhaps a little leisure. I say
perhaps, for my leg is still hampered with a few links of the
convict's chain.

The wish is realized. It is a little late, O my pretty insects! I
greatly fear that the peach is offered to me when I am beginning
to have no teeth wherewith to eat it. Yes, it is a little late:
the wide horizons of the outset have shrunk into a low and
stifling canopy, more and more straitened day by day. Regretting
nothing in the past, save those whom I have lost; regretting
nothing, not even my first youth; hoping nothing either, I have
reached the point at which, worn out by the experience of things,
we ask ourselves if life be worth the living.

Amid the ruins that surround me, one strip of wall remains
standing, immovable upon its solid base: my passion for scientific
truth. Is that enough, O my busy insects, to enable me to add yet
a few seemly pages to your history? Will my strength not cheat my
good intentions? Why, indeed, did I forsake you so long? Friends
have reproached me for it. Ah, tell them, tell those friends, who
are yours as well as mine, tell them that it was not forgetfulness
on my part, not weariness, nor neglect: I thought of you; I was
convinced that the Cerceris [a digger wasp] cave had more fair
secrets to reveal to us, that the chase of the Sphex held fresh
surprises in store. But time failed me; I was alone, deserted,
struggling against misfortune. Before philosophizing, one had to
live. Tell them that; and they will pardon me.

Others again have reproached me with my style, which has not the
solemnity, nay, better, the dryness of the schools. They fear
lest a page that is read without fatigue should not always be the
expression of the truth. Were I to take their word for it, we are
profound only on condition of being obscure. Come here, one and
all of you--you, the sting bearers, and you, the wing-cased armor-
clads--take up my defense and bear witness in my favor. Tell of
the intimate terms on which I live with you, of the patience with
which I observe you, of the care with which I record your actions.
Your evidence is unanimous: yes, my pages, though they bristle not
with hollow formulas nor learned smatterings, are the exact
narrative of facts observed, neither more nor less; and whoever
cares to question you in his turn will, obtain the same replies.

And then, my dear insects, if you cannot convince those good
people, because you do not carry the weight of tedium, I, in my
turn, will say to them: 'You rip up the animal and I study it
alive; you turn it into an object of horror and pity, whereas I
cause it to be loved; you labor in a torture chamber and
dissecting room, I make my observations under the blue sky to the
song of the cicadas, you subject cell and protoplasm to chemical
tests, I study instinct in its loftiest manifestations; you pry
into death, I pry into life. And why should I not complete my
thought: the boars have muddied the clear stream; natural history,
youth's glorious study, has, by dint of cellular improvements,
become a hateful and repulsive thing. Well, if I write for men of
learning, for philosophers, who, one day, will try to some extent
to unravel the tough problem of instinct, I write also, I write
above all things for the young. I want to make them love the
natural history which you make them hate; and that is why, while
keeping strictly to the domain of truth, I avoid your scientific
prose, which too often, alas seems borrowed from some Iroquois
idiom."

But this is not my business for the moment: I want to speak of the
bit of land long cherished in my plans to form a laboratory of
living entomology, the bit of land which I have at last obtained
in the solitude of a little village. It is a harmas, the name
given, in this district [the country round Serignan, in Provence],
to an untilled, pebbly expanse abandoned to the vegetation of the
thyme. It is too poor to repay the work of the plow; but the
sheep passes there in spring, when it has chanced to rain and a
little grass shoots up.

My harmas, however, because of its modicum of red earth swamped by
a huge mass of stones, has received a rough first attempt at
cultivation: I am told that vines once grew here. And, in fact,
when we dig the ground before planting a few trees, we turn up,
here and there, remains of the precious stock, half carbonized by
time. The three pronged fork, therefore, the only implement of
husbandry that can penetrate such a soil as this, has entered
here; and I am sorry, for the primitive vegetation has
disappeared. No more thyme, no more lavender, no more clumps of
kermes oak, the dwarf oak that forms forests across which we step
by lengthening our stride a little. As these plants, especially
the first two, might be of use to me by offering the Bees and
Wasps a spoil to forage, I am compelled to reinstate them in the
ground whence they were driven by the fork.

What abounds without my mediation is the invaders of any soil that
is first dug up and then left for a long time to its own
resources. We have, in the first rank, the couch grass, that
execrable weed which three years of stubborn warfare have not
succeeded in exterminating. Next, in respect of number, come the
centauries, grim looking one and all, bristling with prickles or
starry halberds. They are the yellow-flowered centaury, the
mountain centaury, the star thistle and the rough centaury: the
first predominates. Here and there, amid their inextricable
confusion, stands, like a chandelier with spreading, orange
flowers for lights, the fierce Spanish oyster plant, whose spikes
are strong as nails. Above it, towers the Illyrian cotton
thistle, whose straight and solitary stalk soars to a height of
three to six feet and ends in large pink tufts. Its armor hardly
yields before that of the oyster plant. Nor must we forget the
lesser thistle tribe, with first of all, the prickly or 'cruel'
thistle, which is so well armed that the plant collector knows not
where to grasp it; next, the spear thistle, with its ample
foliage, ending each of its veins with a spear head; lastly, the
black knapweed, which gathers itself into a spiky knot. In among
these, in long lines armed with hooks, the shoots of the blue
dewberry creep along the ground. To visit the prickly thicket
when the Wasp goes foraging, you must wear boots that come to mid-
leg or else resign yourself to a smarting in the calves. As long
as the ground retains a few remnants of the vernal rains, this
rude vegetation does not lack a certain charm, when the pyramids
of the oyster plant and the slender branches of the cotton thistle
rise above the wide carpet formed by the yellow-flowered centaury
saffron heads; but let the droughts of summer come and we see but
a desolate waste, which the flame of a match would set ablaze from
one end to the other. Such is, or rather was, when I took
possession of it, the Eden of bliss where I mean to live
henceforth alone with the insect. Forty years of desperate
struggle have won it for me.

Eden, I said; and, from the point of view that interests me, the
expression is not out of place. This cursed ground, which no one
would have had at a gift to sow with a pinch of turnip seed, is an
earthly paradise for the bees and wasps. Its mighty growth of
thistles and centauries draws them all to me from everywhere
around. Never, in my insect hunting memories, have I seen so
large a population at a single spot; all the trades have made it
their rallying point. Here come hunters of every kind of game,
builders in clay, weavers of cotton goods, collectors of pieces
cut from a leaf or the petals of a flower, architects in
pasteboard, plasterers mixing mortar, carpenters boring wood,
miners digging underground galleries, workers handling
goldbeater's skin and many more.

Who is this one? An Anthidium [a tailor bee]. She scrapes the
cobwebby stalk of the yellow-flowered centaury and gathers a ball
of wadding which she carries off proudly in the tips of her
mandibles. She will turn it, under ground, into cotton felt
satchels to hold the store of honey and the egg. And these
others, so eager for plunder? They are Megachiles [leaf-cutting
bees], carrying under their bellies their black, white or blood
red reaping brushes. They will leave the thistles to visit the
neighboring shrubs and there cut from the leaves oval pieces which
will be made into a fit receptacle to contain the harvest. And
these, clad in black velvet? They are Chalicodomae [mason bees],
who work with cement and gravel. We could easily find their
masonry on the stones in the harmas. And these noisily buzzing
with a sudden flight? They are the Anthophorae [wild bees], who
live in the old walls and the sunny banks of the neighborhood.

Now come the Osmiae. One stacks her cells in the spiral staircase
of an empty snail shell; another, attacking the pith of a dry bit
of bramble, obtains for her grubs a cylindrical lodging and
divides it into floors by means of partition walls; a third
employs the natural channel of a cut reed; a fourth is a rent-free
tenant of the vacant galleries of some mason bee. Here are the
Macrocerae and the Eucerae, whose males are proudly horned; the
Dasypodae, who carry an ample brush of bristles on their hind legs
for a reaping implement; the Andrenae, so manifold in species; the
slender-bellied Halicti [all wild bees]. I omit a host of others.
If I tried to continue this record of the guests of my thistles,
it would muster almost the whole of the honey yielding tribe. A
learned entomologist of Bordeaux, Professor Perez, to whom I
submit the naming of my prizes, once asked me if I had any special
means of hunting, to send him so many rarities and even novelties.
I am not at all an experienced and, still less, a zealous hunter,
for the insect interests me much more when engaged in its work
than when struck on a pin in a cabinet. The whole secret of my
hunting is reduced to my dense nursery of thistles and centauries.

By a most fortunate chance, with this populous family of honey
gatherers was allied the whole hunting tribe. The builders' men
had distributed here and there in the harmas great mounds of sand
and heaps of stones, with a view to running up some surrounding
walls. The work dragged on slowly; and the materials found
occupants from the first year. The mason bees had chosen the
interstices between the stones as a dormitory where to pass the
night, in serried groups. The powerful eyed lizard, who, when
close pressed, attacks both man and dog, wide mouthed, had
selected a cave wherein to lie in wait for the passing scarab [a
dung beetle also known as the sacred beetle]; the black-eared
chat, garbed like a Dominican, white-frocked with black wings, sat
on the top stone, singing his short rustic lay: his nest, with its
sky blue eggs, must be somewhere in the heap. The little
Dominican disappeared with the loads of stones. I regret him: he
would have been a charming neighbor. The eyed lizard I do not
regret at all.

The sand sheltered a different colony. Here, the Bembeces [digger
wasps] were sweeping the threshold of their burrows, flinging a
curve of dust behind them; the Languedocian Sphex was dragging her
Ephippigera [a green grasshopper] by the antennae; a Stizus [a
hunting wasp] was storing her preserves of Cicadellae

sporting tribe; but, should I ever wish to recall it, I have but
to renew the mounds of sand: they will soon all be there.

Hunters that have not disappeared, their homes being different,
are the Ammophilae, whom I see fluttering, one in spring, the
others in autumn, along the garden walks and over the lawns, in
search of a caterpillar; the Pompili [digger or hunting wasp], who
travel alertly, beating their wings and rummaging in every corner
in quest of a spider. The largest of them waylays the Narbonne
Lycosa [known also as the black-bellied tarantula], whose burrow
is not infrequent in the harmas. This burrow is a vertical well,
with a curb of fescue grass intertwined with silk. You can see
the eyes of the mighty Spider gleam at the bottom of the den like
little diamonds, an object of terror to most. What a prey and
what dangerous hunting for the Pompilus! And here, on a hot summer
afternoon, is the Amazon ant, who leaves her barrack rooms in long
battalions and marches far afield to hunt for slaves. We will
follow her in her raids when we find time. Here again, around a
heap of grasses turned to mould, are Scoliae [large hunting wasps]
an inch and a half long, who fly gracefully and dive into the
heap, attracted by a rich prey, the grubs of Lamellicorns,
Orycotes and Ceotoniae [various beetles].

What subjects for study! And there are more to come. The house
was as utterly deserted as the ground. When man was gone and
peace assured, the animal hastily seized on everything. The
warbler took up his abode in the lilac shrubs; the greenfinch
settled in the thick shelter of the cypresses; the sparrow carted
rags and straw under every slate; the Serin finch, whose downy
nest is no bigger than half an apricot, came and chirped in the
plane tree tops; the Scops made a habit of uttering his
monotonous, piping note here, of an evening; the bird of Pallas
Athene, the owl, came hurrying along to hoot and hiss.

In front of the house is a large pond, fed by the aqueduct that
supplies the village pumps with water. Here, from half a mile and
more around, come the frogs and Toads in the lovers' season. The
natterjack, sometimes as large as a plate, with a narrow stripe of
yellow down his back, makes his appointments here to take his
bath; when the evening twilight falls, we see hopping along the
edge the midwife toad, the male, who carries a cluster of eggs,
the size of peppercorns, wrapped round his hindlegs: the genial
paterfamilias has brought his precious packet from afar, to leave
it in the water and afterwards retire under some flat stone,
whence he will emit a sound like a tinkling bell. Lastly, when
not croaking amid the foliage, the tree frogs indulge in the most
graceful dives. And so, in May, as soon as it is dark, the pond
becomes a deafening orchestra: it is impossible to talk at table,
impossible to sleep. We had to remedy this by means perhaps a
little too rigorous. What could we do? He who tries to sleep
and cannot needs becomes ruthless.

Bolder still, the wasp has taken possession of the dwelling house.
On my door sill, in a soil of rubbish, nestles the white-banded
Sphex: when I go indoors, I must be careful not to damage her
burrows, not to tread upon the miner absorbed in her work. It is
quite a quarter of a century since I last saw the saucy cricket
hunter. When I made her acquaintance, I used to visit her at a
few miles' distance: each time, it meant an expedition under the
blazing August sun. Today, I find her at my door; we are intimate
neighbors. The embrasure of the closed window provides an
apartment of a mild temperature for the Pelopaeus [a mason wasp].
The earth-built nest is fixed against the freestone wall. To
enter her home, the spider huntress uses a little hole left open
by accident in the shutters. On the moldings of the Venetian
blinds, a few stray mason bees build their group of cells; inside
the outer shutters, left ajar, a Eumenes [a mason wasp] constructs
her little earthen dome, surmounted by a short, bell-mouthed neck.
The common wasp and the Polistes [a solitary wasp] are my dinner
guests: they visit my table to see if the grapes served are as
ripe as they look.

Here, surely--and the list is far from complete--is a company both
numerous and select, whose conversation will not fail to charm my
solitude, if I succeed in drawing it out. My dear beasts of
former days, my old friends, and others, more recent
acquaintances, all are here, hunting, foraging, building in close
proximity. Besides, should we wish to vary the scene of
observation, the mountain [Ventoux] is but a few hundred steps
away, with its tangle of arbutus, rock roses and arborescent
heather; with its sandy spaces dear to the Bembeces; with its
marly slopes exploited by different wasps and bees. And that is
why, foreseeing these riches, I have abandoned the town for the
village and come to Serignan to weed my turnips and water my
lettuces.

Laboratories are being founded, at great expense, on our Atlantic
and Mediterranean coasts, where people cut up small sea animals,
of but meager interest to us; they spend a fortune on powerful
microscopes, delicate dissecting instruments, engines of capture,
boats, fishing crews, aquariums, to find out how the yolk of an
Annelid's egg is constructed, a question whereof I have never yet
been able to grasp the full importance; and they scorn the little
land animal, which lives in constant touch with us, which provides
universal psychology with documents of inestimable value, which
too often threatens the public wealth by destroying our crops.
When shall we have an entomological laboratory for the study not
of the dead insect, steeped in alcohol, but of the living insect;
a laboratory having for its object the instinct, the habits, the
manner of living, the work, the struggles, the propagation of that
little world, with which agriculture and philosophy have most
seriously to reckon?

To know thoroughly the history of the destroyer of our vines might
perhaps be more important than to know how this or that nerve
fiber of a Cirriped [sea animals with hair-like legs, including
the barnacles and acorn shells] ends; to establish by experiment
the line of demarcation between intellect and instinct; to prove,
by comparing facts in the zoological progression, whether human
reason be an irreducible faculty or not: all this ought surely to
take precedence of the number of joints in a Crustacean's antenna.
These enormous questions would need an army of workers; and we
have not one. The fashion is all for the Mollusk and the
Zoophytes [plant-like sea animals, including starfishes,
jellyfishes, sea anemones and sponges]. The depths of the sea are
explored with many drag nets; the soil which we tread is
consistently disregarded. While waiting for the fashion to
change, I open my harmas laboratory of living entomology; and this
laboratory shall not cost the ratepayers one farthing.





Next: THE ANTHRAX




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